Let It Bleed – The Rolling Stones – 12/5/1969

With Beggars Banquet, the Stones stripped down their music until they were left with a basic, elemental sound. With Let It Bleed, they continued that reductionism with their lyrics. While the lyrics of Beggars Banquet deal with much more mature topics than previously touched upon, that album still hides behind contrivance in some places. Let It Bleed, on the other hand drops the walls a little and starts to let the listener know what it’s like to be a Rolling Stone. And what’s it like to be a Rolling Stone? Well, you do a lot of drugs.

Drugs, too, are laid bare on Let It Bleed, though not completely. It wouldn’t be a Stones record if it weren’t filled with layers of subtext and innuendo, and this time it’s directed towards powders and pills of all kinds instead of sex. At this point in their career, drugs probably took up more of their attention than girls; the shine and glamor of both things wear off fairly quickly, but drugs has a killer hangover. I think the Rolling Stones were just entering that hangover in late ’69.

The first place the drug lifestyle’s weariness can be heard is “Love In Vain.” Written and first made famous by bluesman Robert Johnson (whose deal with the devil is now a piece of rock and roll mythos), the Stones’ interpretation staggers and sways like a drunken bum. It bears more resemblances to classic country western than the blues. The fact that this comes so early in the album should ring a tiny bell in the listener’s head; the Stones have aged a little, and time has not been kind.

forget the bogeyman; if you really want to frighten children, tell them about Keith Richards

Consider this: if they started aging in 1969, how old must they be by 2012? No wonder Keith Richards looks like a corpse that’s been reanimated about 7 times.

Then comes “Country Honk,” a version of “Honky Tonk Women,” a single from a few months before. “Honky Tonk Women” is a rock and roll stomper, but “Country Honk” takes a more acoustic and country western tack (there’s that term again). Mick sings it with a slight wink to it, and the listener buys the song both at face value and with the wink. “Country Honk” is just a small piece of the evidence of Mick being one of the most charismatic lead singers of all time. He’s like a mega-church preacher in his complete sway over his audience.

“Honk” (both versions), talk about a tried and true image of the rock lifestyle: whores. Speaking about them fondly and non-judgmentally, I find its drunken, you’re-so-awesome aesthetic kinda charming. “This foxy broad gives me sex and drugs, and her words are kind and cheerful. What’s not to love?”

Later in the record comes “Monkey Man,” which takes a pretty direct approach to drugs and the social effects they have. “A monkey on my back” has long been a common term for an addiction. Most of the time it’s drugs of any kind, but a monkey doesn’t care exactly what addiction gets it on your back. Mick works that image and manipulates it like a good poet does. In this song, the narrator is celebrating his unhealthy, co-dependent relationship to his subject; he has a monkey on his back (drugs), while he becomes a monkey on her back. Don’t they make a cute couple?

However, the best song that follows this theme is the title track. The swaying, drunken happiness of the vocals, the quivering guitar and the sloppy, relaxed drumming make a perfect drinking song for seedy bar in the poorest segment of London at 3am. “Let It Bleed” also features the simultaneous hopelessness and ecstasy of addiction to the strongest degree in the Stones’ entire catalog.

The Rolling Stones’ legal troubles with drugs (they are actually illegal, after all) are well documented, but at the turn of the decade, they would only get worse – a lot worse. I heard an unsubstantiated story that by the time of Exile on Main St. in late 1972, when the Stones wanted to go out on tour, Keith Richards went to a clinic in Switzerland first, paid them a boatload of money, and had his entire blood supply completely replaced. His blood was so filled with heroin and cocaine that he was literally incapable of doing a tour; he was barely capable of leaving the house. Getting all new blood was the most efficient option. This story is almost definitely false, though I haven’t read Keith Richards’ autobiography to find out. But the fact remains that Richards and the rest of the Stones were headed for a very dark place. Let It Bleed isn’t the first indicator; it isn’t even the most glaring. But it is one of the best records of the entire 60s.

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